Nuclear weapons proliferation has been described as the “largest single vulnerability associated with the expansion of nuclear power”.1 Restricting the spread of nuclear material whilst at the same time promoting nuclear power simply does not work.
The idea that conventional nuclear reactors are somehow proliferation resistant is based on a fundamental misconception. Separating weapons-useable plutonium from spent nuclear waste fuel does not require a large industrial-scale reprocessing facility like Sellafield. A quick and simply designed plutonium separation plant could be operational in four to six months.
A global expansion of nuclear power will also require a proportional expansion of uranium enrichment capacity, which could also be used to produce weapons-grade uranium and would probably lead to an expansion of reprocessing too. The diffusion of knowledge and the increase in global trade of the specialized materials and equipment needed to build and operate uranium enrichment facilities and reprocessing plants would make it more difficult to detect clandestine weapons programmes.
The nuclear industry has a vision of a world fuelled by nuclear energy with most spent fuel being reprocessed to separate plutonium which is then used to fuel fast reactors, which produce more plutonium. This scenario will almost certainly never come to fruition because of technical, economic and other obstacles. But, in the meantime, spreading civilian technology around the globe threatens to open a Pandora’s Box with multiple mini-Cold Wars springing up in trouble spots around the world.